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Duke, GoTriangle having ‘constructive’ talks about light-rail concerns, official says

The Durham-Orange light rail system, shown here in a rendering of a proposed downtown Durham station, would run 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham.
The Durham-Orange light rail system, shown here in a rendering of a proposed downtown Durham station, would run 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. Submitted

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said Tuesday local leaders are confident that Duke University and GoTriangle will resolve concerns about the $2.47 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project.

GoTriangle’s interim project manager, John Tallmadge, met Monday with Tallman Trask, Duke’s executive vice president, and staff to talk about issues Duke President Vincent Price raised in two letters last week, Schewel said.

The meeting came as Federal Transit Administration officials arrived Tuesday for a final assessment of the 17.7-mile light-rail project’s budget, risks and details. The rail system would link UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham, and points in between.

A final federal funding application could be submitted early next year.

No issues are insurmountable, Schewel said, and Duke officials know the project’s importance to the community and the region.

They “had a very successful meeting dealing with a lot of very specific issues,” he said. “It went extremely well, and we’re very encouraged. Duke has really come to the table in a very, very constructive way.”

Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs called the talks “encouraging” and praised Duke for appointing Trask as the main liaison for the project. She noted Trask also serves on the board of the nonprofit GoTransit Partners, which is raising donations for the light-rail project.

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U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield also wrote to Duke’s president last week, urging him and the Board of Trustees to donate land needed for the project. Duke’s Board of Trustees could consider its options Friday.

Tallmadge and Trask declined to comment for this story.

GoTriangle needs Duke to commit to right-of-way land donations by Dec. 31, but several concerns remain, including the light-rail route across Cameron Boulevard and up Erwin Road, past its medical and research facilities, Duke President Price said.

While the Board of Trustees meeting Friday will be Duke’s last official trustees meeting this year, Schewel said the board could vote during a special meeting at a later date.

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A drawing shows how the Durham-Orange light-rail tracks could be laid along Erwin Road near the Durham VA Medical Center and Duke University Medical Center. Inset B shows the previous plan for the tracks and Erwin Road station; Inset A shows the revised plan. GoTriangle Contributed

What are Duke’s concerns?

Preserving safe, emergency access to Duke’s Level 1 trauma center

Potentially negative effects of light-rail noise and vibration on sensitive medical and research operations

Preserving a required, 100-foot buffer around the Global Health Research Building at Research Drive and Erwin Road

Maintaining a safe pedestrian entrance to the Duke Eye Center during and after construction

Closing Trent Drive for weeks over years of construction, which Price said could cost Duke patients, revenues and potentially jobs

Guarantees that a critical electricity line won’t be affected

A safer light-rail crossing that won’t affect heavy traffic at Erwin Road and Cameron Boulevard

How closing the Blackwell/Corcoran Street railroad crossing could negatively affect downtown revitalization and growth, and create a disconnect between the city’s core and American Tobacco and other destinations to the south

Why does Duke matter?

The light-rail project cannot advance without Duke’s partnership. GoTriangle documents note seven of the 19 proposed stations will serve Duke’s campus and medical facilities, generating about 37 percent of the train’s riders — nearly 9,000 daily boardings.

The Duke/VA station on Erwin Road is expected to be the second-most popular stop, according to GoTriangle documents, with about 2,500 boardings a day. The most popular stop is expected to be UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

Why is this an issue now?

Most of the concerns are not new. Duke, GoTriangle and local officials have been working to resolve them for a few years, leading to the addition to the plan last summer of a $90 million elevated track on Erwin Road. Duke previously expressed concerns about a street-level track.

Other concerns, such as noise and vibrations, were examined as part of the project development studies, which wrapped up last year.

FTA officials said it is not uncommon for transportation projects to encounter challenges during the planning process.

Q. What is GoTriangle’s response?

GoTriangle officials addressed each concern in a Nov. 20 memo to President Price, noting that:

The elevated track will be built in phases, leaving two travel lanes and additional room in each direction for ambulances. GPS-based Emergency Vehicle Pre-emption technology also will be installed, giving ambulances priority access at traffic signals. Durham County EMS has been involved in those conversations.

Previous analysis has found that the soil in that corridor suppresses vibrations and the noise is primarily from traffic. The light-rail train is expected to be quieter than existing traffic, GoTriangle officials said.

Electrical guarantees must be worked out with Duke Energy, which has approved the elevated track’s location.

GoTriangle officials offered to work closely with Duke on issues of construction and patient and emergency access. They did not address Duke’s concerns about the downtown railroad crossing. Those talks are continuing with several downtown stakeholders.

Q. How are we paying for light rail?

A final application for $1.24 billion in federal funding — half of the project’s $2.47 billion construction cost — is due to the Federal Transit Administration by April. The state could pay another $190 million.

Duke’s donation would be part of $102.5 million in public and private donations, including over $15 million in land donated by UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. Central University and the Durham VA Medical Center.

That leaves the counties to pay roughly $945 million, plus another $847 million to $908 million in anticipated interest on short- and long-term loans. The local money is being raised through a half-cent sales tax and car rental and registration fees.

General Manager Jeff Mann has said GoTriangle is spending roughly $4.8 million a month on project engineering. That adds up to roughly $121 million by the end of November, including $33 million for a required environmental impact study. The FTA could reimburse half of the money if the project gets a federal grant.

Q. What happens next?

Federal Transit Administration officials will review the project’s readiness how much local, state, public and private money is committed.

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The project only needs a “medium” overall rating to seek federal money, but many previous projects have scored higher. FTA officials gave the project a “medium” overall rating last year, with lower ratings for GoTriangle’s financial estimates and the money committed at that point.

What happens after the project is submitted to FTA?

GoTriangle expects to get an answer about federal funding by September 2019, which would meet a state deadline of November 2019 to have all non-state funding in place. The money would be paid in $100 million installments over the next 12 years, starting with the 2019-2020 federal budget.

The light-rail system could transport its first passengers in 2028.

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